Duke Wheeler inspects one of his many rows of trees that are ready to go home for the holidays.

Oh(io) Christmas Tree

The Christmas tree is a time-honored part of the holiday season, one which has brought families together for generations. Seventeen years ago, Farm Bureau members Duke and Martha Wheeler of Whitehouse, Ohio, purchased the 50-year-old Whitehouse Christmas Tree Farm. Over time, the operation has expanded from a modest 3,000 mature trees to more than 60,000 trees in all stages of growth, from eight inches to 30 feet tall. They grow approximately 15 species of trees. Among the most popular are the blue spruce, Norway spruce, white pine, Scotch pine, Fraser fir, Douglas fir, Concolor fir and Canaan fir.

It’s the experience

Whitehouse Tree Farm opens for business the day after Thanksgiving and is only open Thursdays through Sundays until mid-December. “Selling trees isn’t my primary occupation, so I am not trying to sell trees all the way up to Christmas Day,” said Duke Wheeler. As a father, Wheeler sees the last week and a half up to Christmas as a time to relax with his family – his three children come home to help with the farm every year.

Whitehouse is a “cut your own” Christmas tree farm, where families can come out to the farm and search for their tree and have it cut down while they wait. Because of this, the Wheelers’ trees are a little more expensive than others, but the experience families receive is worth more than the money, he said.

“We really feel like you can get a tree any place, but coming here, we’re selling experience, and we want to be part of your family experience,” Wheeler said.

That experience starts as soon as you walk on to the farm. The Wheelers greet customers at the entrance and let them have free rein of the farm in the search to find their perfect Christmas tree. Maps and signs lead the way to the species and size of tree desired. Tree cutters are on hand to assist with the tree of choice, and they will deliver it to the farm’s service center where workers shake and bale it and then tie it down to your vehicle for the drive home.

“Most of our children (visiting the farm) haven’t had the opportunity to go to a farm, so to come out to the country to see a different way of life is fun for families,” said Wheeler. Most families set aside an entire afternoon or evening to go to Whitehouse, and some have been known to bring their grills and coolers and camp out all day.

Horse-drawn wagon rides, grilled hot dogs, hot chocolate and cozy fires – all free of charge – add to the experience and is what has drawn customers to the same location for more than 30 years. The Wheelers grilled 9,000 hot dogs last winter and have witnessed a child eat 12 of them in one visit.

Wheeler said they want everyone to go away from the farm happy and encourages families to bring a camera for special moments. “We know if the child is happy, the parents are happy and we’ll see them again next year.”

Making a Difference
As a member of the Ohio Christmas Tree Association, Whitehouse Christmas Tree Farm takes part in Operation Evergreen, an 11-year-old program that allows American servicemen and women to celebrate Christmas with a live Ohio tree. Last year, Operation Evergreen collected, packed and shipped 300 Christmas trees from farms across Ohio to send to soldiers in Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Qatar. The program has been expanded over the years to include donated tree decorations from churches, Girl Scouts and other service organizations.

The effort was brought to a larger scale by the National Christmas Tree Association two years ago through its effort called “Trees for Troops.” Last year 11,000 trees were sent to military men and women via the program.

“The sacrifices they’re making over there are unbelievable, and we want to bring a little bit of comfort to them. It’s exciting to be a part of a program where hundreds of thousands of people are making a tremendous difference,” Wheeler said.

Dave Reese, vice president of the Ohio Christmas Tree Association, said Christmas trees appeal to the senses and can conjure memories of life back home to soldiers. “A living green tree signifies an everlasting durability. The splash of green and the aromas are what memories are built upon,” he said.

“It’s a wonderful way to show appreciation to those overseas,” said Reese, who has grown and sold trees on Kaleidoscope Tree Farm in Mt. Cory for 25 years. “We (cut your own farms) base our entire business upon the family tradition. I think the Christmas trees are very important to them. It’s one way to keep the tradition going.”

A little bit more
The dedication to the troops continues even further at Whitehouse. On “military weekend” the farm gives away a tree to military families who have a soldier overseas or have had a soldier recently return from duty. Originally, they limited the trees to the first 50 families, now it’s up to 100 and even goes past that. “How do you have somebody serving in the war and you say, `Sorry, but you’re number 51, we can’t give you a tree’? I’d give all my trees away if the war would be over,” Wheeler said.

According to Reese, Ohio’s “cut your own” Christmas tree farmers are united in their goal to bring families together for the holidays. “I cherish seeing three generations of a family together at the same time enjoying the snow, peacefulness and serenity. To see people laughing, giggling, whooping and hollering is what Christmas should be all about.”

Christmas Tree Tips
The “perfect” Christmas tree isn’t sold in stores, corner lots or even giant tree farms. That’s because of our differences in personal taste. If everybody had the same “perfect” tree, it would take the fun out of venturing to the farm to find one. Here are some tips to help you in your journey to find your Christmas masterpiece.

Popularity: Fraser fir, Canaan fir, Douglas fir and blue spruce are the top four trees sold at Whitehouse. The blue spruce, left, has the best “treelike” shape that customers desire but has a strong, sharp needle. “We recommend the softer needles if you have small children,” Martha Wheeler said. Fraser firs, Canaan firs and Douglas firs all have softer needles with good retention. Another tree gaining in popularity is the Concolor fir, which emits a citrus scent. It has bluish needles that tend to stay on the tree throughout the season.

Size: The Ohio Christmas Tree Association recommends measuring the height and width of the space where the tree is to be placed; don’t estimate. Trees in the field will always look smaller than what they actually are. If you wish to put a star on your tree be sure to account for the extra height. Most people have 8-foot ceilings; with a star on top, you will want about a 7 1/2 foot tall tree.

Keep it fresh: Be sure when you get your tree that it has been shaken. This eliminates loose needles or any other objects that were in or on the tree in the field. When you get the tree home, cut 1/2 to 1 inch off the bottom to keep the tree fresh; a tree can drink 1 quart of water per inch of the trunk diameter each day, so be sure to keep the water full and watch it closely.

Safety: Trees are not a fire hazard if kept fresh and if safety precautions are taken. Keep the tree away from open fireplaces and electrical cords. Also be sure that all lighting is working properly.

Following these tips will help you celebrate safely with your fresh and “perfect” live tree.